Exploring the 2nd Body Practice at MorningSun Sangha

Exploring the 2nd Body Practice at MorningSun Sangha

By David Viafora, True Zen Mountain

Isolation has been high and loneliness stronger than ever for so many people this the past  half year or longer. What is a good way to create more robust friendships and social connection as a spiritual community? This summer at MorningSun, we started a new practice together in our residential Sangha – a second body system!

My experience from living in Plum Village and Deer Park Monastery as both a lay practitioner and novice monk is that this is one of the easiest and most enjoyable ways to grow healthy friendships and help everyone feel more socially connected. As a young novice in Plum Village, I remember the first time I got sick with a head cold and needed to stay in my room alone for a few days. I was still new to the monastic community in Plum Village and so I was feeling especially lonely, distant, and cut off from the Sangha during my illness. It was a total surprise to me during the first day I was sick when my second body delivered hot oatmeal and fruit to my room. I slept right through breakfast, and woke up to find the caring gift on my nightstand. Every meal thereafter, he came again!  Every day, we shared lunch and dinner together, enjoying the delicious food in silence together, like I would with the Sangha. We stared out of the glass doors to the lush forest outside, content with each other’s presence without words.  Since I was alone all day, his wholehearted presence with me each day helped me feel cared about, loved, and valued. Even though it was just him coming, I felt that I truly belonged as part of the whole Sangha family.

The second body system is so powerful because you don’t need to improve your friendship with everyone in order to feel connected to the larger community and for friendships bloom across the entire Sangha – you only need to focus on one. If everyone focuses on one person, then it spreads around the whole Sangha like fertilizer in your garden. No matter if your friendships are young seedlings or well established, this compost helps everyone grow together.

We started our second body practice at MorningSun just a few weeks ago, and already I’ve heard some wonderful accounts. Joaquin went for a 9 mile bike ride around Lake Warren with Mary Beth during her typical weekday outing to split up her work day.

Candace is my second body and she invited me to plant tomato and sweet potato seedlings on Saturday afternoon, after I finished work. She’s also invited me to go for a walk and have tea together, but planting young veggies seemed so much more fun!

I treated Fern, my second body to share some dark chocolate during my work lunch break. This stimulated some great conversation, as Fern shared about her family’s newfound interest of playing Dungeons and Dragons together. Without our 2nd body practice, I would have never learned (or imagined in my wildest dreams) that Fern enjoys D & D so much now!

So what is 2nd body and why is it called that? Well, everyone looks after themselves first – we care for and attend to ourselves as our first body. Everyone is assigned one person in the Sangha as their 2nd body, whom they try to be a special friend for a period of time. Everyone is thus tied together in a circle of 2nd bodies.

Here is the explanation that we developed at MorningSun, which both Michael and I spoke about during our resident meeting to explain to people.

2nd Body practice is an opportunity to deepen our friendships as a resident community. Strong communities depend on the personal relationships between members, like a quilt that is woven together of many threads and seams. By strengthening each individual friendship, we strengthen the entire fabric of our community. The 2nd body practice help us expand beyond our typical and most frequent connections, as everyone is given the name of someone to look after for a given period of time. In our case, we will experiment with this practice for 3 months. 

Everyone in the circle of participants has someone who they are caring for and being cared for, as we are connected together like a circularly linked chain. So if we care for just one person, then in a way we are caring for our entire community. We approach this practice with lightness. We’re not trying to be someone’s therapist (or guru :). We are just keeping the friendship alive and growing in the circle of our community. Connecting with our 2nd body each week extends us out of our normal habit energies of busyness and narrow looking. One of the intentions of this practice is to pull us out of our habitual forces of self-interest, self preservation, and isolation from others, and gently pull us into a spirit of more openness and connection together. The practices extends our attention outwards to be more deeply aware of our Sangha sisters, bothers, and siblings; as a community, we respond to each other’s needs in our own individual ways.

The Sangha expressed that connecting for about 30 minutes each week was a reasonable standard for connecting with our 2nd body each week. This means that each of us who chooses to participate will arrange a half hour (or so) time to connect each week with our assigned person. At the same time, someone else will be assigned us and reaching out to connect for 30 minutes as well. If we go above and beyond the 30 minutes, that’s fine (but not expected), as half an hour per week is our stable baseline of practice. As these 2nd body relationships are assigned, sometimes they connect very easily, and other times they don’t really click. Relationships are always shifting and changing, and after a few months, the practice will end. Afterward, people may opt in for another round of different 2nd bodies depending on the community and individuals’ interests.

It is up to each 2nd body relationship how people wish to connect, whether in person (at a safe distance), by phone, zoom, etc. People may believe it’s easier to connect for one hour every two weeks versus 30 minutes per week, for example. Aside from the half hour weekly foundation, people may like to offer other means of support or gifts to brighten the day or week of their 2nd body (a card, a flower, a bar of chocolate, a warm smile in passing, etc.). People are welcome to be as creative as they wish! 

Let’s remember that this is an experiment in community together!  No one will do this perfectly, and we are bound to make mistakes here and there. But we are all encouraged to give it a try and do our best to enhance the friendships in our Sangha life together. As Honey Bear shared during our meeting on Saturday,  “Anything worth doing is worthy doing badly.”  I love that!  

Every Sangha can choose how they would like to implement the practice especially including how often people are encouraged to meet together. For example, at MorningSun, we suggested about 30 minutes each week, but you could also suggest anywhere between 10 minutes and one hour every week or two. Depending on what works best for you and your community, make the practice your own!

Thay also wrote about the 2nd body practice in Joyfully Together. Here is his take on it:

“The second body system is a Sangha building practice at Plum Village. IN a large Sangha, it isn’t possible to be close to everyone, so we are each given a “second body” to take special care of. Your own body is your “first body,” and a Dharma sister may be your second body. Her second body may be another sister, and so on. In this way, everyone has someone to look after, and everyone is looked after by someone else. “looking after” means taking care of and helping our second body when she is physically ill, afflicted in mind, or overworked. For example, when you are traveling together, you are responsible to see that your second body is not left behind. When your second body’s spirts are low, you can find a way to raise them. When your second body is not able to smile, you can help her to smile.  When he has the flu, you can bring him food and medicine. If you need to, you can also as for the help of an elder brother, sister, or lay friend in the Sangha.

We use the second body practice in all the Plum Village practice centers, and it is something we take seriously. This practice raises the quality of our happiness living together. Many lay Sanghas also practice the second Body system. It can be a wonderful way to stay connected to the whole sangha by taking care of just one member of the Sangha. In a large family we could do the same.

After hearing some of our inspiration for the 2nd body practice, maybe you would like try it out in your own Sangha! Not everyone needs to join – even if you have just three people, you can be ready to go. There’s no perfect ways to do it and there’s no perfect friend – only perfect mistakes.

As this experiment is still new at MorningSun, I will update you in 3 months to tell you how it goes!

Thank you to all those who have shared their depth of 2nd body practice with me over the years.

The Research on Loneliness and Social Isolation

The Research on Loneliness and Social Isolation:

A Mindful and Communal Response to a Social Epidemic

June 2020 

In contrast to the mindfulness communities that Vanessa and I visited around the world, there is a deep malaise in our society’s communal and relational health. Research over the last few decades, both in the US and abroad, shows us that the fabric of community life, including people’s sense of connection to their closest relations, has been steadily deteriorating. We live in a society where personal isolation and loneliness are at an all-time high. Even before the global COVID-19 pandemic, more than one in five Americans reported feeling lonely, more people than ever said they had not even a single confidant, and the average person’s social network had shrunk in size by over one third. COVID-19 has greatly exacerbated these feelings of aloneness, social alienation, and widespread craving for human connection. Our society has reached a critical juncture, as people are more disconnected from each other than ever before.

Meanwhile studies claim more than ever that strong social ties have a profound influence on our happiness, physical health, mental clarity, and even our lifespan. Whether conscious of it or not people suffer from a lack of trustworthy relationships and community support, and some of them are looking for new ways to build such meaningful connections into their lives.

Once we wake up to the fact that community has a pivotal influence on the health of our bodies, minds, and world, we can begin to build more trustworthy, supportive connections and meaningful lives. As the research on loneliness and social isolation points to, no matter how we try to succeed by ourselves alone, happiness manifests most vibrantly within relationships. The need for community oases of mindful living and compassionate human connection is as great as at any time in history.  Let’s look at both the research on loneliness and isolation as well as community mindfulness practice so we can shine a bright light into how mindfulness communities can help people enhance the quality of their relationships and heal the depths of isolation within.

A Social Epidemic of our Time

The longest research project on happiness is a 75 year study by Harvard University. It has lasted three generations of researchers who have interviewed hundreds of people from early adolescence or undergraduate college years until the last years of their lives. Two findings of this study really point to the value of community and relationships.

The first is that strong social connections really support and enhance people’s well-being. The second finding is that loneliness kills. People who are more socially isolated than they wish to be find that they are less happy, their health deteriorates earlier in mid life, their brain functioning heads downhill more quickly, and they even die earlier than those with strong relationships. Right now, more than 1 in 5 Americans report that they are lonely (1). This is an epidemic of our time with grave consequences. 

A 2015 review of over 70 international studies and more than three million participants from around the world concluded that social isolation, loneliness, and living alone were all associated with increased risk of death that year (26% for reported loneliness, 29% for social isolation, and 32% for living alone.) Interestingly, it wasn’t just just the older adults who were most at risk of these consequences; middle age folk living alone suffer more of these consequences than older adults. Both loneliness and social isolation are independently associated with poorer health behaviors such as poor sleep, smoking, and physical inactivity, as well as with biological health processes like higher blood pressure, and poorer immune functioning (2). Relationship quality has an even greater influence on one’s health than other risk factors like physical inactivity and obesity. Having a robustly integrated social life was as healthy as quitting smoking up to 15 cigarettes or consuming 6 drinks of alcohol per day! (3) It sounds like the only thing worse for one’s health than being lonely is being a lonely smoker!

Bowling Alone

The chasm of social isolation has been growing steadily over the last half century, exacerbating these health consequences. In 2000, Robert Putnam’s groundbreaking research revealed that across American social domains, social capital has been significantly decreasing. Social capital refers to, “the connections among individuals’ social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.” (p. 19). Putnam documents the decline of in-person social interactions in American lives, from civic participation to workplace networks, informal networks, religious participation, political participation, mutual trust, and altruism. His meta-analysis empirically demonstrates that Americans’ in person social engagements have plummeted. For example, the number of people who bowl regularly had increased over the past few decades. However, the number of people who bowled with others in leagues decreased! When people bowl alone, they don’t engage socially or grow friendships that would normally occur in league environments. Hence, he aptly titled his book, “Bowling Alone” (4).

More recent research affirms that the number of Americans who say that they have no trustworthy person to confide in has tripled (5) and that the average person’s social network has shrunk in size by over one third (6). Affluent nations who have the highest rates of people living alone (6). The overall decline of social capital is due to less frequent intergenerational living, greater social mobility, getting married later in life or not at all, dual-career families, and more people living by themselves, among other reasons (3). Despite the growing connections through technology and social media, the quality of meaningful social relationships is clearly and steadily decreasing. I’m writing this right now in the midst of the greatest social distancing measures of modern history, during the COVID pandemic. If 20% of Americans were experiencing loneliness before spending their lives under shelter, we can only imagine what these numbers are like now, and what it will do to their health beyond the novel coronavirus.

The Good News

So that was the bad news. The good news is that there is plenty of uplifting research as well as opportunities before us to reverse these trends where it counts the most – in our own lives and communities. Those who have stronger and more intimate relationships with family, friends, and community are happier, healthier, and live longer than people with poorer social ties. Those with robust social networks were between 50% and 90% more likely to survive during the year than those without (3). The Harvard study showed that human connection is so influential to our physical health that at age 50, how satisfied they were in their closest relationships was a better predictor of health later in life than their cholesterol levels! The benefits of strong relationships transcends our physical health. Being in securely attached relationships to other people also protects one’s brain as people’s memories stay sharper longer. It’s not just the quantity of friendships either; rather, it’s the quality and closeness of those who we spend our lives with that benefits our health and longevity. Those with the greatest happiness and resilience were those who really leaned into their closest relationships, especially when facing tough life challenges (1).

In the “Art of Community”, Charles Vogl writes that millennials are more interested in connection and values-based activism than their predecessors. They yearn for close friendships, strong connections with their family, and engaging in creative, meaningful work with others that has a profound impact on their community and the world (7). High school seniors are more likely than previous generations to state that “making a contribution to society is very important to them and they want to be leaders in their communities.” Millennials are more enthusiastic about joining social movements or environmental causes than participating in social clubs as with previous generations (8). Business sage and author Seth Godin writes that we are now living in a connection based economy where people hunger for social and value based connections more than material things (9). 

Where are people finding these connections? A 2015 Pew Research report revealed that over one-fifth of the general public and one third of young adults under 30 were no longer participating in religious organizations. People continue to report that spirituality or God is still just as important to them, but they are no longer drawn to religious communities in the same way that their parents and grandparents were (10). Youth and Americans today are searching for relationships with those who share their ideals, but they’re often not connected to communities which facilitate meaningful ongoing connections, healthy participation, as well as life-honoring rituals.

Waking Up To Community

We need to help create refuges of compassionate and joyful communities where young people can come and nourish their spirits and protect themselves from society’s insidious effects of loneliness, isolation, and despair.  When practiced in community, mindfulness strengthens bonds of acceptance, appreciation, empathy, and joy between close friends and loved ones. Whether in person or on Zoom, weekly Sanghas and mindfulness groups offer the medicine needed to help heal our society’s estranged hearts.

For those who are new to this, mindfulness is the awareness of what is happening within and around us in this very moment, in the spirit of curiosity and kindness. Everyone has this innate capacity, and we can strengthen it within ourselves in every moment. Mindfulness helps us access the living intelligence of our own body and mind, grow our capacity to face suffering in ourselves and others with compassion, establish deeper relationship with nature, strengthen our bonds with others, and open our eyes to the gifts of life (among lots of other benefits!)  An even deeper aim of mindfulness within community is discovering our profound interdependence with each other and all life on earth, recognizing that we are never truly alone.

But practicing mindfulness depends on the guidance, motivation, and interpersonal experiences that arise in a Sangha, a community of practice. Mindfulness thrives in environments where slowing down and cultivating moment-to-moment awareness is collectively and compassionately encouraged, as opposed to mainstream societal tendencies towards extreme busyness, dispersion, and overconsumption. In community, we naturally learn from others how to uniquely adapt mindfulness to our lives where we struggle and need it the most. Without a community, we are a like bird lost from the flock, struggling alone against the wind.

Similar to our Sanghabuild journey of visiting thriving communities around the world, Professor Karen Liftin traveled to and wrote extensively about the most prominent ecovillages on the planet, communities dedicated to responding to our planet’s growing ecological disaster. She saw ecovillages as “seeds of hope sparsely spread across the global landscape.” Similarly, I see mindfulness communities as seeds of healing and transformation spread across the isolated landscape of humanity. We can easily grow these communities for ourselves and future generations if we put our whole hearts into the task, and ask for support and guidance from others. I don’t believe that mindfulness communities are the only answer to humanity’s problems. But it’s clear from my life experiences and travels that they offer a profound opportunity and viable path forward. For the sake of humanity, other species, and our planet, we need all the best answers we can get.

The next Sanghabuild post will share 5 ways of healing loneliness and isolation in community…

(Whether you are physically isolated or not)


  1. Quoted in Robert Waldinger, “The Good Life,” TEDxBeaconStreet, November 30, 2015.
  2. Holt-Lunstad, Julianne & Smith, Timothy & Baker, Mark & Harris, Tyler & Stephenson, David. (2015). Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 10. 227-237. 10.1177/1745691614568352
  3. J. Holt-Lunstad, T. B. Smith, and J. B. Layton, “Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review,” PLoS Med 7, no. 7 (2010), e1000316, doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316.
  4. Putnam, Robert, Bowling Alone. 2000.
  5. McPherson M, Smith-Lovin L (2006). Social Isolation in America: Changes in core discussion networks over two decades. Am Sociol Rev 71: 353–375.
  6. Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin, and Matthew E. Brashears, “Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades,” American Sociological Review 71, no. 3 (2006): 353–75.
  7. Vogl, Charles, The Art of Community: Seven Principles for Belonging. Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition.
  8. Fifteen Economic Facts about Millennials, Council of Economic Advisors, whitehouse.gov, October 2014.
  9. Seth Godin, Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us (London: Penguin, 2008), 24.
  10. “Nones on the Rise,” Pew Research on Religion and Public Life, October 9, 2012, www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/.

Mindfulness Joins US Extinction Rebellion

Times Square , NYC

October 2019 

I sat down on the cool stone bench at the corner of Times Square, patiently watching vehicles squeeze through the endless bottleneck of traffic. Seated next to a few XR friends, my body felt vibrantly energized, and at the same time edgy with anticipation and anxiety. Closing my eyes, I allowed the cool breaths of October air to flow deep into my chest and abdomen, slowly mellowing out the tingling nerves that had crept into my limbs and extremities. Even at the bottom of this flashing concrete jungle, peace was possible. A friend leaned over to me and whispered, “Any moment now.” I looked over at Brother Phap Man, exchanging a glance of faith and a half-smile as we internally prepared for love in action.

Among the vehicles stopping and starting through the intersection, an SUV towing a 60 foot covered trailer suddenly stopped right in the middle of the street. “Go, go, go!”, I heard voices excitedly around me. In a flash, about 75 of us were darting out of every invisible street corner and into the intersection towards the motionless vehicle. Nearly 20 people started stripping off the canvas covering a large neon green boat, while a dozen others blocked incoming traffic from both sides. Another 20 or so joined arms while forming a circular blockade to protect those focused on fastening themselves with cables, locks, and super glue to the bottom, inside, and sides of the bright green vessel that read in large bold black letters, “Extinction Rebellion.” Hundreds of pedestrians stood blank faced with jaws dropped and wide stupefied eyes, wondering if this was some chaotic road scene emergency, or an impeccably orchestrated street spectacle at the heart of the city’s business district.

Order of Interbeing member and meditation teacher Shea Reister leaps over the canvas before quickly and mindfully locking himself to the boat with steel cables.

Within a few minutes, about 40 of us had gathered in a ‘soft hold’, linking arms at our elbows in solidarity to encircle the boat and its ordainment of a dozen human glue-ons. To the captivated and growing audience of bystanders around us, it must have looked like some kind of flashmob performance offering heartfelt entertainment in contrast to the monotonous orders of the workday. We were a colorful bunch of demonstrators with many of us holding flags of diverse countries being devastated by climate change, and others wearing orange life-vests to both highlight the festivity of our moment as well as dramatize the impending doom of rising oceans.  The best view of the event was held by our youngest activist superhero: a brave 16 year old boy standing on top of the boat with his hands locked around the mast, his feet superglued below, and his whole body silently yet loudly sounding an alarm for the plight of his generation.

Having fully secured our vessel in the street, and standing in stable formation, I felt an almost overwhelming combination of feelings, ranging from triumphant exaltation to heart pounding excitement and fear. It’s not every day that one risks running into the street to defiantly disrupt downtown traffic and risk arrest. I checked in with my body’s needs, as the intense adrenaline rush had resulted in some blocked pain in my chest. I closed my eyes and took refuge in my breathing again, relaxing attention into my body, and sensing the stability and strength of the earth pressing up into the soles of my feet, supporting my entire body’s weight. After a few minutes, the tensions in my chest lifted effortlessly, and I brought my attention back to the chaotic celebration around us.

Dozens of police were quickly trickling in by motorcycle and foot from different directions between the stopped traffic. At the same time, I started heard songs of passionate enthusiasm coming towards us. The Extinction Rebellion rally of a few hundred people taking place several blocks away had finally marched its way to meet us. As they eventually saw us holding the intersection, I watched their faces light up with exhilaration towards us. Their cries of joy looked like a geyser of pent up pain and grief that finally bursts itself through as a fountain of exuberant celebration. I felt overwhelmed with relief and gratitude to witness their vibrant support in such a vulnerable moment.

My fears of defying society’s rules, of ‘disobeying’ the powers that be, of being arrested and going to jail, or having a red stain on my record had all completely left me at that moment. Even the financial high-rises looming dominantly over us, under which I often feel very powerless and small had somehow crumbled in their stature before me. Their indomitable presence no longer felt oppressively unshakable in their weight of power over us. Instead, as a community we had conquered our own fears, and were burying even more powerful seeds of rebellion, hope, and renewal right in the belly of this beast called denial. Standing there with my Gaia bodhissatvas, standing in solidarity with the earth and her most vulnerable beings, I looked out into a crowd of myriad faces, and smiled from the depths of my soul as if I was looking directly into the eyes of my children and all future descendents. My deepest fears of abandoning or turning away from them and their lives out of despair and cowardice had vanished.

I started noticing hundreds of people pressed up against the endless sea of glass walls running high and low surrounding Times Square as well as dozens of suited business women and men coming out of the buildings to check out the scene. How many of them deeply questioned the consequences of climate change that day? How many people felt the tensions of internal dilemma rise to their hearts that hour?  I prayed that this demonstration would humbly inspire them to question their own roles and responsibility towards our earth and future generations.

In less than 15 minutes, we were surrounded by over 70 NYPD uniforms. A young, short, and gentle yet stoic faced male officer told me to stand up as I was under arrest. Our trainings in nonviolent civil disobedient action had clearly guided us to cooperate, never resisting arrest or even going limp. I placed my hands parallel to each other, rather than crossed, knowing that the cuffs wouldn’t be as tight. But to my surprise, he secured them very loose anyways, even softer than the hand cuff ropes I had felt as a child while playing cops and robbers with my neighborhood friends. As a group of predominantly white middle class activists, we had it incomparably easy in contrast to black and brown skinned friends who’ve been historically and systematically subjected to much harsher treatment from this city’s law enforcement. As a group of white dudes risking arrest, we had little to fear from law enforcement, and law enforcement showed little fear of us.

As I stood there in front of the police, waiting to be escorted to the arrestee bus, people in the crowd were sending messages of support and gratitude from every direction. One woman, with tears in her eyes, kept saying, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you”. Another woman was blowing us kisses with her hands. As I walked to the jail bus, a smile was bursting forth from my heart, and I could not believe how happy that I felt, standing there in the middle of Times Square, a policeman escorting me away. I was about to visit jail for the first time in my life, and it was a true moment of joy.

‘Peace is every step’: Plum Village Dharma Teacher Phap Man enjoys mindful steps towards the jail bus.

Elder Sacrifice

We sat in our caged bus for about an hour and a half, waiting for the strategic operations unit to finish dissolving superglue and slicing through the steel cables still holding our last demonstrators aboard the ship. We weren’t moving, and I wasn’t going anywhere that day either, except for the city jailhouse. I had time to relax and reflect on the significance of our actions that morning.

‘So why all the drama?’, you may ask. ‘How does getting arrested help our earth and prevent worsening effects of climate change?’ The short answer is that time is running out and the stakes are unbelievably high. In 2018, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) released a report saying that we have 12 years to drastically turn around our emissions output, or else we will certainly reach a drastic tipping point that will set off extreme global climate consequences. The environmental movement in the last several decades has largely focused on encouraging consumers to limit their own carbon budget, and yet our CO2 emissions are still increasing every year!  Between 100 and 200 species are going extinct every day, and we are going through the middle of the 6th mass extinction of our planet. Citing thousands of studies, the IPCC reports conclude with high degrees of confidence that climate changes and ocean warming are anthropogenically induced. Our governments have all this information and yet they are still paralyzed to respond. Extinction Rebellion was launched worldwide last year in response to this report and inadequate governmental measures to protect our planet and all those at risk.

When a vast part of the population desperately wants a particular issue to change, but the rules of the game prevent its solutions, then civil disobedience can become a catalyst for social transformation. Extinction Rebellion was founded in nonviolent social movement theory and anti-oppression work, modeled after historically successful movements in the past, like the civil rights and suffrage movements in the US, Ghandi’s Satyagraha movement in India, among many others. Any movement bringing foundational change must be unequivocally committed to nonviolence inside and out.

Peaceful protests that block business as usual are not only annoying and costly, but they brings tons of public attention and unearths a growing societal dilemma that becomes too difficult to ignore. People are forced to ask themselves, ’Do we support the government and police to continue repressing these activists? Or do we support the movement’s requests for decarbonizing our economy and stronger environmental protection?’ The government can do one or the other – repress or collaborate. Further forceful repression fuels the dilemma and calls more people to question whether they side with the demonstrators or the government. The more people arrested, the more attention is created, and the more the public struggles with facing the deeper questions of the crisis, especially what side they are on. Inevitably, as the root problem worsens over time, the movement expands exponentially… until a breaking point cracks open with solutions.

‘Rebellion Week’ in Melbourne, Australia, October 2019

As a middle class American born white guy with a graduate degree and professional merits, risking arrest has relatively insignificant negative consequences for my life, yet a potentially huge social and environmental impact. Many teenagers, especially young people of color, are asking for their elders, particularly those with white privilege to take an ‘elder sacrifice’. So many young people wish that they could also take a stand of civil disobedience for the plight of earth justice, social justice, and racial justice. But if they want to go to college and take out student loans, a misdemeanor on their record, even one based on love for the earth, can seriously screw things up. So they are asking others to step forward, and put our bodies on the line for their future, and the future of many other human, animal, and plant species. Thus, being arrested in this spirit is a kind of gift to them and the planet they will inhabit.

Being arrested isn’t the best option or even a reasonable one for many people. That’s partly why it’s so right for me! I don’t have any personal trauma with police authorities; I didn’t grow up in a community that suffered from police brutality and discrimination; my legal residential status in the country is not threatened; I don’t have any reason to fear that police will treat me more harshly than others; I have little to lose economically, except for a modest fine and needing to travel back down to the city for my violation court date; and I’m not afraid that my health or personal safety are at any peril from law enforcement. Generally I feel quite safe with criminal justice system, and that is an enormous privilege for me to do something positive with. Since my basic needs and survival are not threatened in any way with the law, this makes me the perfect arrest-able candidate!

XR sisters offering an arrest for climate change, Times Square, NYC, October 2019

Iron Bars Meditation Hall

A few hours later, we arrived in the jail. There we were together, without cell phones, internet, books, or food; instead, we had several rows of benches, a water dispenser, a couple of toilets and sinks behind a chest high wall, plenty of iron bars, and an unknown number of hours on our hands, and each other. I thought to myself, ‘Without all the iron bars, we’d have the same ideal conditions for a great retreat center!’ After such an emotional event, what a perfect combination for connecting to ourselves and each other.

After conversing for an hour or two, I was ready for some quiet time. When I told a few guys what I was about to go meditate, their faces lit up. “Oh that sounds perfect. Do you mind if I join you?”, one guy eagerly asked. I checked around with others, and it was clear that people were craving some silence and inner relaxation after such an adrenaline thumping morning.

A few other practitioners and beloved friends of mine had also finally arrived in the cell after being processed: Brother Phap Man, a monk whom I knew from Plum Village and Blue Cliff Monasteries for over a dozen years; and Shea Reister a vibrant Wake Up facilitator (young adult groups) and Order of Interbeing member in the Plum Village tradition, with years of experience in environmental actions, and building communities of mindfulness practice. I was overjoyed to see them, knowing we would spend the rest of the day in jail together, and could offer our meditation practice to the group.

I checked in with them and another XR organizer, who had already been brainstorming some mindful exercises for our group while on the bus. We started by offering a guided meditation for anyone who wanted to join us in the second half of the cell. To my surprise, at least 35 of the men joined!  We hardly had space on the benches for everyone to sit. Meanwhile, the other 5 to 10 had some quiet time to themselves, which was probably very helpful as well.

Wake Up London helped facilitate daily meditations during Rebellion Week, October 2019

I sat cross legged on the bench, using the concrete wall behind me as a support for my back. I didn’t have a bell, so I tuned into the soothing tone of my voice to gently guide the brothers into practice. I focused mostly on awareness of the body, guiding people through a simple body scan, relaxing and releasing tension from the soles of our feet all the way up to the muscles and skin on our scalp. After several minutes, my awareness sank into the subtle spaces of breathing, and softened into the intimately quiet body of men around me. Tensions lifted out of our pores, the gentle buzzing of our minds hummed together, and the boundaries of separation within and around us quietly melted, as the iron bars and officers gradually dissipated into a greater whole. There was no jail or confinement, no inside or outside, no one being held, no one holding. There was just this ripe shared awareness of being alive, the soft subtle movements of breathing, murmurs of careful shifting in the room, and the sense of being held within a community of practice right here.

Towards the end of our meditation, I started hearing what sounded like angels chanting harmonies in the distance. Were they prison angels? Heavenly spirits of the civil rights movements from decades ago here to befriend us? My mind playfully delighted at such thoughts. Down the long halls of the jail, separated into several cells, our XR sisters were connecting hearts and spirits with one another through the jail walls via vocal melodies. Perhaps they couldn’t see each other, but they could hear and harmonize with one another in even more powerful ways. We couldn’t make out the words, but the distinct overlapping melodies and choruses came in strong, like waves gently rolling and tumbling over us, one after another, falling on an invisible island of healing and strength. In our silence we found peace and stability; in their song, they shared healing and joy.

Evening meditation in Trafalgar Square. Between 200 and 300 people were arrested every day during Rebellion Week in London, 2019

Healing our Masculinity

After our meditation, later that afternoon, Brother Phap Man guided us in another set of practices, integrating mindfulness with masculinity. We gathered in a circle, with everyone just barely fitting into one fairly circular formation. He started by guiding us in breathing exercises for 10 minutes to ground and deepen our presence with ourselves and each other. Then he offered a short teaching. “I know that all of us here have a deep calling to confront and help transform difficult things in our world out there – forces that are destroying our earth and oppressing communities. But if we really want to transform things out there, then we have to know how to encounter and transform the pain and fear inside ourselves first. If we can be compassionately and fearlessly present with what’s inside of us first, then we’ll absolutely be strong enough to embrace and transform the greatest challenges out there.” We were all hooked. His brown robes gave him the pulpit to be heard, but it was his words and presence that gave him their hearts.

Exercises that challenge the habits of typical masculine emotional expression can be a hard sell. But if there’s one thing that these men respected, it was challenging the forces causing environmental destruction. They knew he was telling them the truth: if you can encounter and befriend your shadows within, then the monsters of the world are no match for you.

On this premise, he had the sway to test these guys’ inner level of comfort. He invited everyone to split into pairs, and gave instructions for a two minute silent eye gazing practice. Here we were, 40 dudes inside a New York city jail, silently staring into each other’s eyes for minutes that seemed like eternity. I could hardly believe he was going there!  But no one turned away or left the room; everyone stayed with it. Silent dominated our cell with each breath, and time seemed to shrivel into each other’s eyes as we watched our reflections stare back into our depths.

Sitting Meditation in front of New York City Hall, Rebellion Week, October 2019

“Now slowly close our eyes, and bring your attention inside”, he guided us. “Whatever you are experiencing, honor it, and feel the care and kindness towards your own being. Whatever is there, just love and care of it with your whole heart.” He was pairing the practice of lovingkindness, known as ‘maitri’, with this intimately vulnerable eye gazing exercise. After a few minutes, we were back to the eyes of our beloved man once again. Then we closed our eyes again, focusing on what we appreciated, loved, and enjoyed about our friend, no matter how closely we knew him, another practice known as “mudita” or symphathetic joy. We had another round of pupil watching, followed by a reflection on the pain and suffering in that person’s life, the practice of “karuna” or compassion.

We continued like this for a few more rounds, followed by several minutes for each of us to share about our experiences while the other person listened silently. Then we came back to the larger circle, and Brother Man invited people to share with the whole group anything that was alive for them. A slightly older man acknowledged, “I’ve never felt this close to a group of men before, with this depth of openness and realness. Thank you to all for being here.” Another more gruff and woodsy looking fellow shared, “I’ve never had the experience of looking into another man’s eyes before like that. I felt both love and some fear at the same time. But I appreciated the vulnerability and acceptance that was there in both of us.” A middle aged man shared, “I’ve been wanting to do a men’s group like this for some time now; I just never thought that it would be in jail!” We all burst out laughing, remembering the irony of our present situation. Another man recounted recognizing the face of an old friend from high school during the demonstration as he was getting arrested. His friend, however, was in uniform. He teared up with emotion, acknowledging that he was acting on behalf of his friend’s teenage kids just as much as his own children. Nearly everyone who spoke expressed a depth of gratitude for all the men present in the room, and especially to Brother Man for leading us.

Meanwhile during all this, a few guys noticed some police officers curiously peering into our cell. They were checking out this rare male bonding session, and looking at us as if we were men from another planet!  Although I didn’t see them watching us myself, I can only imagine the looks on their faces as they watched our jail cell full of men staring silently into each others’ eyes for minutes on end, over and over again. While they may have laughed or poked fun at a scene so peculiar to their cultural norms, I wonder whether they were also touched by our gentle, kind and fearless presence that day.

We ended by singing a few songs together, led by Shea. Forty-five men singing together in a jail cell is a brilliant sound and heart warming site if you ever have the chance to hear it. The song goes:

Let the life I lead speak for me.

When I get to the end of the road,

And I lay down my heavy load,

Let the life I lead, speak for me

Students rally before occupying the administration office at Columbia University, New York, October 2019

Back to Community

After about 9 hours together, they began letting us go in groups of four to five. I honestly felt a little sad leaving this beautiful community of men I had bonded with, but I was also hungry and excited to get home as well. We walked out of the jail and were met by a small group of smiling and waving people in puffy jackets waiting on the cold street corner. “You must be the jailhouse welcoming committee!”, I said laughing. “Oh no”, a woman explained. “We’re here to direct you towards the welcoming party!” “Welcoming party?!”, I asked incredulously. We walked down the street, and around the corner we were met by a crowd of about 40 to 50 people hanging out, conversing lightheartedly, and playing music on the sidewalk. It really did look like a party, and when they saw us coming, they all started cheering for us!  I didn’t even know these people! Yet here they were, welcoming and celebrating us with big hearts of joy as if we were heroes. In addition, there was a long buffet of hot homemade food and delicious snacks stretching over three tables! Curry, pasta, Chinese food, salads, drinks, cookies, and fruit…we had enough goods to celebrate all night!

The man who co-led my nonviolent civil disobedience training was also there with his young daughter. “How are you doing?”, he asked with caring attention. “I feel wonderful!” I exclaimed. “Really?!”, he laughed. “Well that’s great.” “Seriously”, I added, “This was one of the best days ever. I can’t wait to come back together and do it again!”

Extinction Rebellion is ground swelling global environmental movement that is unequivocally committed to nonviolence and telling the truth about the science and consequences of climate change. There is a strong component of regenerative community that welcomes and prioritizes meditation, art, and other healing elements in our work. For more info, check out rebellion.earth … or read ‘This is Not a Drill’.

“Let the life I lead, speak for me”

Being and Non-Being (Online)

Being and Non-Being (Online)

(Part 1 of Digital Dharma Series)

October 2019 

After hearing the long undulating sounds of the bell, Selina slowly massaged her hands and face, tenderly transitioning out of the guided meditation. A light, crisp pitch of the smaller bell signaled for her and others to stand up and practice walking meditation, or use the restroom if needed. But as usual, Seline gently walked out of her living room, silently stepping into her baby daughter’s room. Over the wooden crib walls, she was in the same fetal position, tucked away under a light blue cotton blanket, and looking as peacefully still as if she too had just benefited from the meditation happening next door.

Seline’s peace turned into a soft joyous smile as she gazed for a few more moments, and then as quietly as she came in, slowly walked back to her sitting cushion on the floor. She took a few conscious breaths after resettling into her seated half lotus posture, and then very mindfully reopened her laptop. There was her beloved Sangha – seated beautifully and quietly on her screen, having just finished walking meditation and waiting for the Dharma sharing circle to begin. Present and at ease, Seline was with her Monday evening online Sangha, and she felt fully at home.

Even just 10 years ago, this kind of connection was impossible for most people. Now, hundreds of practitioners around the world, spanning multiple languages, are connecting and supporting each other’s mindfulness practice through virtual mindfulness communities. It’s the perfect fit for single parents like Seline, who sorely missed her local Sangha’s support and strength in person. But now, she can engage once or twice a week with her online group while never having to roam farther than the sound of her baby’s voice.

Due to the calls of parenthood, young parents often feel left out of Sangha life during the most challenging period of their family’s development. Not everyone has a grandparent willing to stay over while one or both parents go to Sangha every week, and most retreat centers don’t have children’s programs until the kids are 5 or 6 years old. But now, the Sangha can come right into their own living room, and the bell is never louder than one’s headphones.

Young parents are not the only ones connecting through online mindfulness communities; this modality seems to be born out our changing world that many others live in as well. Consider Joseph, a 34 year old video producer from the UK, who needs a stable source of motivation to meditate and emotinal support to balance his demanding profession life. This Wednesday, Joseph is in Barcelona, far away from home. But it’s no problem –  his Sangha is traveling with him, just an hour later than usual. He hooks up online, opens up Zoom, and finds a dozen friends already waiting for him, ready to meditate.

Like many others in the business world, Joseph is continually traveling to different cities and countries around Europe, spending just a fraction of each month at home. His online Sangha has become the most reliable companions on his path, having been with the group for 3 years strong. Others in his Sangha have been deepening friendships with each other for even longer. Every week since 2012, each of them takes a 90 minute break from their hectic lives to meditate, read or listen to a Dharma teaching, and discuss how the practice is going in their every day lives. Everything is live, in the moment, online. Some of the members have moved multiple times, having left family, friends, jobs, pets, neighbors, and even the coffee shop and corner store owner. Through it all, no mater where they move, the Sangha keeps showing up, right in his living room.

So where can one find or create such a virtual Sangha home?  Plumline.org is has been the central nursery of newborn online groups in the Plum Village tradition. Anyone with the intention to practice can start or join one. Over two dozen groups exist in multiple languages, with different themes of practice, meeting every day of the week. The demand has been so great that some of the groups have had to close their attendance to newcomers.

Online mindfulness gatherings to prepare for the Greece Sangha Service Project, 2018

I recently asked Plumline visionary and co-founder, Alipasha Razzaghipour about why he thought these groups have bloomed in recent years. Combining enthusiasm with a rational depiction of the digital world, Ali shared “Technology is redefining the intersections of space and contact in our world, radically changing the way we relate to distance and travel.”

Ali recounted that a dozen years ago, the first online groups were based on text messages. “I will begin meditating now,” typed one member into their Sangha chat box. “Okay, me too. Enjoy your sit,” confirmed another. Sounds pretty bland, especially compared to the technology of video calls today. But just being aware that another Sangha member was meditating together with them in that moment, despite not being able to see or speak to them, was already very supportive and beneficial. Not everyone can join a local group, for any number of reasons, so being with a virtual Sangha is better than none at all – even a texting Sangha! “Online Sanghas are not for everyone” Ali plainly admitted. “But in-person Sanghas are not for everyone either.” While in-person Sanghas have been my preference over the years, it’s a good point he makes!

Practicing mindfulness with others non-locally has other advantages. It presents a golden opportunity for small niche groups of practitioners to come together in ways that were never before possible. Consider someone living in a small city in Germany who wants to form a mindfulness group that is also dedicated to exploring environmental issues. Whereas her small local mindfulness group doesn’t have the interest, across the US it will be easy to find a dozen (or five or six dozen) practitioners with that particular calling.

Another great example is with young adults who consider aspiring to the Order of Interbeing (OI), which offers tremendous opportunity to deepen practice and study of the 14 Mindfulness Trainings. The Order has been a predominantly older white middle class community in the US, and it’s been challenging to cultivate a more diverse and younger generation. Having multiple young adults in one region with this calling is rare, so young adults or people of color can feel isolated given the generational and cultural gaps. Last year, we were able to easily form not just one, but two online groups of young adults with diverse backgrounds who are enthusiastic about studying the trainings with their peers. The monthly group has been filled with creativity and connection and would never have been possible without a virtual space to connect to. Thank you technology!

Alipasha admitted that there are a number of drawbacks of meeting online, depending on the digital platforms used. For one, the degree of transmission from teacher to student practitioner or peer to peer is not the same online as in person. Perhaps that gap will never be fully closed. Ali believes that’s it’s essential that new practitioners really taste the experience of mindfulness in person first, whether during a retreat or by visiting a local group. Ideally, people can both practice in person as well as online to complement their practice opportunities. This is becoming a reality for many people in the Sangha, who wish to connect locally as well as with niche groups across the globe. Other niche groups include the Earthholders Sangha dedicated to mindfully embracing environmental justice, a facilitator Sangha, Sanghas who speak in Mandarin, Spanish, Vietnamese, French, Italian, and Polish! This may not seem like a big deal for those who live in those countries. But to live in Vietnam and speak Polish at Sangha, or live in Poland and speak Vietnamse to your mindfulness group can be quite a special mindfulness opportunity!

Aside from the many incredible benefits, there are other obvious challenges that come with using a computer to support your meditation practice. Ali jokingly shared, “More than once I’ve noticed during our circle sharing, that someone is wearing glasses and I can see the light reflecting a changing computer screen.” He laughed, noting “We are in fact inviting people to meditate and listen deeply to each other right in front of perhaps the biggest source of addiction in their lives – their screens.”

While meditating online may have its disadvantages, it’s obviously working for many people who are clearly sticking with it over time. Online video groups such as Heart Sangha and World Interbeing Sangha are celebrating their 9th and 10th birthdays together!  With such longevity, these groups are undoubtedly providing a steady source of Dharma nourishment to people, with no signs of slowing down. Plumline already has almost 30 groups meeting regularly, speaking in seven different languages. 

As technology continues to advance its capacities to provide more lifelike experiences for users, the degrees of separation continue to dwindle. When asked what the future holds for online communities, Ali is clear that this growth has just begun. “We’ve seen the evolution of digital Sanghas fly forward in the last few decades; from text based Sanghas, to multiple person phone calls, to Skype, to Google Hangouts, and now to Zoom. Just watch, it won’t be long before we are meditating together in a virtual meditation hall.”

Wow, it all sounds very cool and exciting for the future of Sangha life. But I think our capacities to connect with meaning and flexibility right now is already pretty good. I certainly won’t be holding my breath for it.

“Breathe You are Online”

From King of Vietnam to Beloved Zen Master (Part 2)

Pilgrimage to Yen Tu Mountain (Part 2)

April 2019 

Having finished another incline and panting again with exhaustion, I stop to breathe at a narrow clearing in the forest. This is the hike of a lifetime, so why not enjoy it?, I remind myself. Turning to look back over the brush down the mountain, I feel the Noble Teacher’s eyes gazing in wonder behind me. How many times did he and his attendant overlook this splendor of the rolling blue mountains in the distance and the now miniature valley far down below? I feel the brightness of awe in his eyes as he silently asks, How could this miracle be so real?  I breathe with this sense of wonder as peace gently replaces my fatigue.

Turning my gaze back to the path we have been climbing, a forest hallway of upright pines narrowly cascades down the hillside. I stop to lean against the trunk of a pine, and caress the smooth polished surface of its roots which rise above the earth up to my knees. I am slightly startled upon realizing that these are the living descendants of the pines the Noble Teacher planted on Yen Tu mountain centuries ago. As the stories tell, he placed baby pines not only up the mountain, but along the entire path to the royal capital. Wherever he went, the Noble Teacher walked barefoot or on reed sandals, leaned on his bamboo staff, and carried no more than his wooden begging bowl.

Step by step, up the great hidden mountain

While stopping for another break, I watch two older Vietnamese women step barefoot up the stone and earthen path. How do they climb with such vigor and vitality at their age?, I ponder with admiration. “Xin chao co”, I say with my best Vietnamese accent. We exchange smiles as fellow pilgrims, and their eyes perk open as if to acknowledge our contrasting east and west origins. I am reminded that I am a guest on this mountain, the only hiker with European ancestral roots I’ve seen so far on the path. How many generations of their ancestors have been walking this mountain year after year, century after century?, I silently wonder. This holy mountain must be in their bones, its rivers coursing through their blood, its pine roots woven into their muscle fibers, and its earthen strength pressed into the soles of their feet.

Without hesitation, I take off my Chaco sandals and feel the cool stone under my warm feet. The mountain becomes more alive at each sensation of sand grains, pebbles, roots, and hard stone under my feet. I press my soles into the earth with all of my attention, as if the Noble Teacher were walking with my own feet. I surrender them to the joy and faith he must have felt while wandering barefoot across the same forests or distant village countrysides. Every time I begin to race forward, my feet gently push into the ground, reminding me to enjoy every step, knowing this journey will not last forever.

Beautiful steps or ugly steps, light steps or heavy steps… these concepts exist only in our mind.

The reality of interbeing is unsurpassed.

After 10 years of diligent practice on the mountain, the Noble Teacher traveled the country, offering teachings to other monastics and the public, and establishing temples and meditation centers throughout the country. Everywhere he went, people gathered to hear his talks. He counseled both rich and poor, encouraging them to practice the 10 virtuous deeds. They trusted his words, but were most moved simply by watching the gentle power of his presence, his rare noble bearing transformed into profound humility and grace.

Climbing finally to a plateau, bright green plumeria leaves sway gently over various grey stupas. On each side of the central stupa, a small fish pond surrounded by a walking path and small trees welcomes and refreshes the weary guests. This is the first pagoda, where the retired king and Noble Teacher’s relics are buried. I find it difficult to see the Noble Teacher in a pagoda or where his relics are buried. The foot polished stone steps, hovering mist, and screeching cicadas throughout the forest contain his presence more than anywhere else. I take in the solemn yet beautifully adorned monument for several minutes, touch the earth before his dedication, and continue on.

The second stage up the mountain is much steeper than the first. Each step up the staircase is a push, as we climb another 2,000 feet from the pagoda below. At this stage, a small cohort of Vietnamese pilgrims start to silently bond together as we aspire to collectively mount this vertical pure land and home of our ancestors. A misty fog rises with us, lightening and lifting our spirits up the staircase into this shrouded heavenly mountain. Our view of the fleeting valley and bucolic fields below disappear, reappear, and disappear again until at last we felt completely alone on the mountain.

More steps, or less steps… it doesn’t matter. Peace is always every step.

After a strenuous and sweaty effort, even with many breaks, we finally climb onto the last steps of level 2. At last, we made it to base of the pristine mountain peaks!, I excitedly think to myself. Seemingly out of nowhere, a gigantic golden statue of the Buddha King sitting in full lotus awkwardly manifests before my eyes. Famished and ready for a break, I take a sweet potato from a vendor for about 40 cents, and briefly contemplate the massive icon plopped on top of this holy mountain. Here we were met by throngs of other visitors who took a gondola up from the bottom to visit the statue and perhaps walk the rest of the way to the peak.  After walking amidst such natural beauty for the last few hours, this ginormous golden dude just didn’t seem properly seated up there to me. The statue is actually made in copper, and weighs over 138 tons, the biggest such statue in Vietnam. I was more fascinated by the engineering feat of hauling up there than anything else. With fresh tuber energy, and the peaks not far away, I walked past Mr. Golden Buddha King and continued on.

Because people revered King Nhan Trong so greatly, the country was swept away by his teachings and dedication to monastic life. After his ordination, the Viet Kingdom underwent a spiritual revolution as 15,000 monastics ordained in Vietnam in the following three decades. During his lifetime and afterwards, people referred to him with different names – the Great Ascetic Monk, The Buddha Enlightened King, and the Noble Bamboo Forest Teacher, as he established a new school of Zen in Vietnam: the Bamboo Forest School of Zen (Truc Lam Thien lineage). This is the only Zen school that was founded in Vietnam, as the other Zen lineages originated in China and subsequently flowed into Vietnam. This lineage includes great Zen masters from Huyen Quang in the 14 century, to Lieu Quan in the 18th century, as well as Thich Nhat Hanh in the Plum Village tradition today.

I have arrived, I am home.

On a large stone slab at the peak of Yen Tu, the Noble Teacher meditated and drank tea, either alone or with the company of his closest disciples and family. His sons, the king and prince, as well as his daughter who ordained as a nun all visited him from time to time. Nearby lotus ponds, surrounded by purple bamboo thickets growing between the rocky surfaces decorate the peak. What a magical setting to meditate and drink tea with family and friends!

Finding my own path up the rocky creviced peak, I step and skip from stone to slab, weaving around bamboo patches with renewed enthusiasm to my weary limbs. I approach an old, gorgeously carved shrine, whose wooden refuge is filled with incessant prayers, sandalwood fragrance, and tropical fruits from an endless source of Vietnamese pilgrims. I find a quiet place nearby to listen to the wind’s cool refreshing notes, soak in the 360 view of blue mountains rolling like waves into the foggy distance, and savor the end of my ascension. Thousands of feet higher than where I started this morning, a sense of lightness and freedom settles. The river of worries, drama, and excitement in the world down below seems so distant, unable to reach or tempt us way up here. Perched on a rock outcrop away from the crowds, I breathe gently with the swaying bamboo thickets and Noble Teacher’s presence by my side. Suddenly, in that moment, I realize the depth of my Zen tradition’s formal name – The Bamboo Forest School of Zen. The simple essence of the teachings shines through in the flickering bamboo leaves against the cool mountain fresh air. No frills, no big pagodas, no golden statues. Just a bamboo forest for our classroom, a pine rooted path as our temple walkway, a cup of tea is our holy teaching. Intimately in touch with the simple and profound gifts of the mountain is enough to fill our mind with awe and love.

Looking out to the west, the royal capital of Hanoi housed the new king centuries ago. But it was the Noble Teacher who the people loved and admired the most. He prevented foreign invaders and protected the country’s borders; later, he brought reconciliation and peace with the Cham people, an enemy to the Viet kingdom in the South. Seated here on the mountain top, meditating serenely on a stone slab among flowering bamboo, he dwelled in peace, and the heart of the Viet people dwelled with him.

Even though we have never met the Noble Forest Bamboo Teacher, we may still encounter his his presence through teachings, stories, and poetry. They are a gate for us to truly step into this sacred mountain.

“Going Up Mount Bao Dai”

The landscape is deserted
and the moss makes it seem even more ancient. It is still pale early spring.
Cloud-covered mountains come close,
then waver and fade.
The flower-covered paths are cast with shadows. Everything is like water flowing into water.
For a whole lifetime
the heart always gives voice to the heart. Leaning on the magnolia,
I raise a flute to my lips,
as moonlight floods my heart.


– Hermitage Among the Clouds, by Thich Nhat Hanh
– The Patriarchs of Truc Lam Sect, by Thich Thanh Tu, https://www.truclamvietzen.net/ZenFounders.htm

Climbing Up Zen History in Vietnam

Pilgrimage to Yen Tu Mountain

April 2019 

Standing next to a creek at the foot of the mountain, I beheld my first glances of the ancient pagodas jetting out of dark forest foliage. Misty clouds enveloped the mountain above, hiding the peaks in mystery. Early the next morning, just after dawn, I planned to follow the ancestral footsteps of those who lived, practiced, and pilgrimaged to this sacred mountain of Yen Tu. In particular, I wished to know more deeply the king who abandoned his life in the royal palace to live and train as a Zen monk in the splendor of this mountain. For those practicing in the Plum Village tradition, Yen Tu mountain is the home of our Bamboo Forest School of Zen, and whose soil and stones embody the unique story our Vietnamese Buddhist lineage.

In the 13th century, the royal prince of Vietnam had a hungering curiosity to learn and practice Zen. Instead of assuming his royal duties, he wished to live in the mountains where ascetic life flourished. The prince would soon become king, and when his father learned of his son’s wishes for renunciation, he pleaded for him not to abandon his country and people at such a time.

Does this story sound familiar? Like Siddhartha, the young prince was determined to walk the true path of awakening. However, he did not leave his worldly concerns and the plight of his people just yet. Instead, at the age of 21, he became king and promised to unite his country to defend against imperialistic forces in the North. Supported by his father’s guidance, the young King Tran Nhan Tong immediately developed a plan to unify and strengthen the country in order to fend off the inevitable invasions of the Mongolian empire.

Down at the foothills, several thousand steps under the cloud shrouded peaks, I crossed a charming pagoda bridge, under which an ancient stream flows. It is said that after the king left the capital to pursue monastic life on Yen Tu, many of his royal attendants drowned themselves in the river to demonstrate their unswerving loyalty. Hence a pagoda was later built there to honor them. Feeling unable to fully grasp such a dramatic display of fidelity, I stopped to breathe and gently ponder the river and entrance to Yen Tu. How overwhelmingly loved this king must have been by the people at such a time. What was it like for them to see their beloved leader walk away from palace leadership into the mountain caves and thatched roof hermitages?

At the entrance, one saunters up an endless sight of well laid stone steps weaving through the dense forest hillside. After about 15 minutes of heavy breathing and climbing, I crossed the forest floor at a more mellow incline until the path eventually forks in two. Straight ahead lies an embellished stone staircase, a seemingly new edition to this pilgrim route. To the right is an earthy pine rooted path; its ancient yet familiar appearance pulls me closer and eventually upward. Scattered stone steps rise high and lonely above the soil like the last teeth holding on to its earthen gums. Only the rugged pine tree roots which dominate former stone steps provide stability to the washed out soil. While the route grows ever more steep, the barren pine roots feel ever more sturdy for many native and foreign sandals and fingers to take hold.

As unrivaled horsemen and with superior naval forces, the Mongols had already conquered all of China and were rapidly spreading west, even conquering most of the Middle East and Eastern Europe. It was only a matter of time before their insatiable appetite wrapped its jaws around the Viet kingdom. The Mongols invaded with huge armies by both land and sea. Under the sophistication and courage of King Tran Nhan Tong and his father, the Viet forces used an ancient secret method developed centuries ago to protect against the Mongols’ large naval fleet. As the Mongol forces traveled up the Bach river towards the capital of Hanoi, the Viet forces ambushed them by both land and water, keeping them stalled on the river for a few hours. The Mongols’ greater naval fleet had no idea that underneath them, the Viet forces had previously installed iron tipped spears on the bottom of the riverbed.  As the tide gradually flowed out and the water level steadily decreased, the spears began puncturing the ships’ bottoms!  At the same time, Viet fishermen who were skilled in the art of deep sea diving, were also stealthily puncturing the Mongol boats with nails and hammers.  The famous Mongol admiral who was leading their naval fleet was wearing very strong and fancy metal armor that he used to vanquish his past enemies. But when his ship began to sink, he and his heavy armor did as well. Within a few hours, the Mongols’ naval fleet was nearly decimated. With minimal losses in the south, the Viet forces then repositioned themselves to impeccably defend the northern border against the fierce horsemen.

Under King Tran Nhan Tong, the country had become safe and protected, and enjoyed a period of peace. Without the hardships of war, the king lessened taxes to give relief to the poor, and postponed other military campaigns so that the country could recover after two fierce wars, several famines, and other natural disasters. Having fulfilled his royal duties to his people, King Tran Nhan Tong prepared for his deepest aspirations to unfold. After 15 years leading the dynasty, he passed the crown to his first son in 1293, while closely guiding him for the next 6 years. Relieved of the overwhelming burden of ruling the country, he could now dedicate the rest of his life to spiritual awakening, while also serving as the national counselor to his country and son.

Even as I savored the various dark and light green shaded forest rooms up the mountain, beads of sweat coursed down my face at every turn, and my body grappled with the dense jungle humidity. To escape my discomfort, I continuously felt the urge to push through the fatigue, and race upwards to my destination. The habitual tendency to push through and finish felt so familiar to me, and yet there was another force walking up the mountain alongside me. I could hear the soft and firmly planted footsteps of the Noble Teacher steadily following behind me. His steps had gracefully landed on this path countless times, and had infused his presence into the mountainside. As I stopped to catch my breath, it was as if he too was pausing to breathe at my side for a short rest. A black butterfly with fluorescent blue spotted wings drew near to me, a reward from the mountain for stopping to enjoy her beauty. As I later found out, the Vietnamese say that seeing this black butterfly means the ancestors are present!

The retired king studied the Dharma in depth with the Eminent Master Tue Trung, who was also been born into the Tran royal family and had dedicated half of his life to protecting the country before stepping into monastic life. After 6 years of study and training, the former king finally ordained as a Buddhist monk in 1299, and soon made his home in the majestic forests and peaks of Yen Tu Mountain, dedicating himself to mastering the 10 ascetic virtues. Having lived most of his life in a palace embellished with gold and precious gems, he finally discovered true peace as a homeless monk. He wore only a patchwork robe, slept under simple thatched roofs on Mount Yen Tu, and took the medicine and spiritual nourishment of nature’s offerings. After 10 years on the mountain, he was still not interested in building great temples or pagodas. Rather, he was content with the simple life of awakening, while finding ways to deeply guide and influence the well-being of his country.

Even though we have never met the Noble Forest Bamboo Teacher in person, we may still encounter his presence through teachings, stories, and poetry. They are a gate for us to truly step onto this sacred mountain.

“Going Up Mount Bao Dai”

The landscape is deserted
and the moss makes it seem even more ancient. It is still pale early spring.
Cloud-covered mountains come close,
then waver and fade.
The flower-covered paths are cast with shadows. Everything is like water flowing into water.
For a whole lifetime
the heart always gives voice to the heart. Leaning on the magnolia,
I raise a flute to my lips,
as moonlight floods my heart.

To continue the journey up Yen Tu Mountain and hear about the Noble Teacher’s life, visit

Part 2: From King of Vietnam to Zen Master


– Hermitage Among the Clouds, by Thich Nhat Hanh
– The Patriarchs of Truc Lam Sect, by Thich Thanh Tu, https://www.truclamvietzen.net/ZenFounders.htm

London's Family Sangha!

New London Family Sangha Video!!

London's Family Sangha

December, 2018

Noah and Hannah are in their prime Wake Up years in a blooming young adult community in London. 30 and 27 years old respectively, they’ve been practicing for several years, having facilitated the weekly Wake Up gatherings, organized and co-facilitated retreats, and even started a thriving mindfulness community of 6 young adults living together in London. For many practitioners, this is more than enough to satisfy a rich life of practice and Sanghabuilding. But as young adults, without the responsibilities of their own children, they’ve taken their capacity as Sangha builders to a whole other realm of practice that is just yearning for more growth and offerings…. Family Sangha.

Three years ago, Hannah and Noah’s aspirations collided with Claudia’s, a mother of two teens whose determined spirit for a family Sangha matched theirs…. and a new Sangha was born.  Claudia is from Mexico, and is one of the brightly colored beams in this multifaceted jewel of the Family Sangha, which is one of the most diverse Sanghas in London, and perhaps even among all of the UK Sanghas in the Plum Village tradition. There is usually someone representing each decade of life up till decade #7, and those from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds find a rare and sacred sense of beloved community together.

I was beyond excited and grateful be invited by Claudia, Noah, and Hannah to help organize and teach at their second annual Family Sangha retreat, which just bloomed last weekend. Every month of the year, about a dozen or so families with children of all ages convene in London as one community to nourish each other’s well-being, connect as friends, share a mindful meal, and practice the art of mindfulness. Parents, grandparents, children, and teens – whatever the age, everyone (over 4 years old) has an opportunity to explore the simple yet timeless tools of practice in ways that match their developmentally appropriate needs and strengths. Babies and toddlers just kind of soak in the general vibe, but who knows how much their mirror neurons are taking in and reshaping under such lovingkindness ambiance?!

These family style retreats are probably unlike any other retreat you’ve been to. To be straight up, it’s way more challenging and daunting to one’s practice than any other retreats I’ve done before. Overall, there’s way more work, disorder, and even chaos, and less calm, noble silence, and samadhi than any typical retreat. And yet, as we deepen our practice together over the weekend, it’s even more glorious and satisfying to witness that seed of beloved family-ness blossom in my own soul than any I could imagine.

Half a dozen toddlers may be tumbling around the meditation hall, kids start playfully teasing and laughing with each other, and the teens seem to be just barely hanging on as we gather all together in a circle as one community to begin the day.

Breathing in, I am aware of the elements of chaos within and around me,

Breathing out, I completely surrender to this present moment, with all of its incredible gifts.

Breathing in, I anchor my being in this breath,

Breathing out, I feel my solidity ripple into the room.

Noah sounds a large bell, inviting kids and adults to listen attentively so they can hear the last fading, soothing sounds of the bell, before raising their hands to signal the end of the bell. Kids, teens, and parents all suddenly become one living, breathing, listening body; gradually, little hands and big hands rise together. The sudden change to quiet concentration in this same room is uncanny; before we even know it, mindfulness is alive.

Instead of a children’s Dharma Talk, we try something new with everyone. We form a new circle, aligning ourselves according to our biological age. Eight generations span across the room, from several months old to early 70s. Each person is then invited to share their name, age, and the coolest thing about being that particular age for them. The unique joys and wisdom of our respective years on this planet is awe-inspiring as we collectively celebrate our ageless diversity that typically goes unnoticed.

Soon, the young ones break off for a children’s program with Renata (a regular bodhissatva momma in Family Sangha), while the teens and parents stay to listen to a teaching about authenticity and friendship in the lives of teenagers. Afterwards, the teens split off with me and Hannah, while Claudia and Noah co-facilitate a sharing circle for the parents. Each group then has their own space to dive into their own needs and topics, with privacy, honesty, and most importantly a bit of quiet from the roaring little ones.

Each day, the teens and us share a space together for 75 to 90 minutes, where they can just share freely. No interruptions from parents are allowed, no cell phones to distract, and no one is giving advice to them; only toddlers occasionally try to bust in through the door and see what’s so important. We keep them at bay and blockade the entrance, as a teen refuge is a precious thing! When teens are able to have their own space, and freely share about whatever gripes, struggles and injustices they face in a world that hardly understands them, something magical starts happening. In the midst of sharing what bothers them the most, or what fires them up, there’s a tangible bond that starts forming. In that depth of sincerity and connection, bits of wisdom and personal insights start trickling in little by little. “What was said earlier about if you want to see yourself in 5 years, then look at your friends now, that’s kind of true. That makes me think about who my friends are now and how they’re all influencing me.” I wish I could share more, but I’m sworn to teen secrecy until the end of time.

Ella was a particularly unique presence and gift to our group, her capacity for communication having left us in awe. Ella has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair to get around. She can’t speak or use most of her body. But a few years ago, she started learning a computer program that uses retina laser technology that allows her to ‘type’ into the computer using her eyes’ focus. Amazingly, Ella participated in every teen sharing circle, connecting deeply with us about her personal reflections as a teen. While Ella’s situation is grossly different than a typical able bodied young person, she faces many of the same elements of teen life, from loads of work at school to struggles with parents, to fitting in and going after her creative dreams. For me, Ella’s insights were some of the brightest gems of our retreat.

By the end of the retreat, every teen shared that the best part of the weekend for them was simply having a space for them to share and just be themselves in the teen space. Hannah and I secretly felt like we had just been handed a big treasure chest at the end of a 48 hour voyage at sea on the teen ship.

The last day of the retreat, we offered a practice called Beginning Anew for each of the families to explore together for an hour. Each family found either a nice spot outside on the grass, on a bench, or inside with some tea and biscuits. Then each member was invited to share their sincere appreciations for the other members of the family, express any apologies, as well as as for support for anything that has been difficult within their family or in their lives.

Children, teens, and parents all practice in separate spaces to share, write letters, and create beautiful Beginning Anew cards. The depth of practice and harmony that manifests as the separate streams weave back together as larger families is truly an auspicious sign for the future of our world in which we struggle so deeply to both live and raise children.

Not being with my own family or partner there, I walked around outside during the Beginning Anew sessions. Some families were cuddled up next to each other on a swing, others were sitting together on the grass, sharing smiles and treats, passing cards they colored and wrote for each other, and looking at each other with eyes of affection. I didn’t feel alone or separate from my own family while walking through. Instead, I felt the deep roots of family happiness growing inside of me like a small tree. “Yes, happiness is possible!” was the family vibe in the air. Even as I was holding space for the families to practice together, it was I who received the fruits of their practice. 

Perhaps not everyone was celebrating harmoniously at that hour; some wounds need to be unearthed in order to be healed over time, even if the exposure is painful and difficult. But the collective harmony and transformation was vibrant, and everyone had their peers to take refuge in if their family felt like too much.

For anyone who wishes to start a Family Sangha in their own community, it’s totally possible. Just ask Claudia, Hannah, and Noah. You don’t need to be expert facilitators, and you don’t even have to have kids yourself. In fact, a family Sangha may need you because you don’t have kids, and so you have the time and energy to organize! You just need the spark of bodhicitta to help grow this particular garden, and some time to watch it blossom.

For more information, check out FamilySanghaLondon.com or be sure and watch amazing video that they recently made about their community!

Old friends, young hearts, and playful spirits

Weekend Retreat at Mariposa: Through a Newcomer's Eyes

Weekend Retreat at Mariposa: Through A Newcomer's Eyes

Part 2 of the Sugarplum Sangha Series

September, 2018

We were mindfully enjoying a silent dinner on the first night of retreat when a few more people arrived to the retreat. I noticed them walking slowly, carefully, but with inexpressible eagerness into the dining hall.  A young woman entered the room and hardly glanced at the serving table of delicious offerings. Instead her bright eyes were filled to the brim with joyous anticipation, and focused on a friend coming to greet her. The intimate blend of shyness and joy clearly told a story of how much this place and its people had been on her mind and heart, perhaps for weeks, months, or longer…. she had finally arrived.

The brightness in the woman’s eyes and the nature of that interaction was like someone meeting up a beloved family member or a longtime friend while traveling abroad; the love of home and deep familiarity mixed with a sense of ripening adventure was bursting out of her face. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched the fire of anticipation immediately cooled in the refreshing lake of contact, as they hugged silently and serenely for a few minutes. As a new person to this community, I felt a mixture of both awe and appreciation as well as a touch of envy for the close bonds they appeared to share. Earlier in the week, Jonathan and Eric had already forewarned me with patient excitement in their voices, about the special quality of friendships that were blooming among their nascent community. But hearing about and experiencing are two separate things. This dinner was my first real taste of the wider Sugarplum Sangha that fluidly blends both residential and non-residential practitioners into one family.

The Sugarplum Sangha has held a retreat every month of the year together since December 2016. At that time, Joann Rosen, a seasoned Dharma Teacher and long time resident of the Mariposa Institute had been in communication with Jonathan Borella and My Tong, who were passionate, committed (and not too shabby) Sanghabuilders in the Bay and LA area. She invited them to come live there, partner with the existing Mariposa Center, and hold retreats there regularly, thereby laying the foundations of a mindfulness retreat center and residential community. By the time I visited them in April, they had already offered well over a dozen retreats, and their young Sangha tree was already bearing some delicious fruits in its 2nd year together.

So where does the sweetness of the Sugar Plum Sangha come from?  Well the best way to taste this sweetness is to dive in with me on this weekend retreat and weeklong journey I spent there with them… So come along!…

Welcome to Mariposa! …. Dinner will be a bit late, but very happily prepared!

As the sunset laid down countless beams upon the glowing oak leave canopy over Mariposa, I walked down the gravel road to a large wooden yurt for orientation. Its Eastside windows seemed to hang like a spaceship in midair over the creek bed valley and oakwood forest, offering us the beauties of outdoor living in this cozy hall. Having helped wash up after dinner, I was the last one to arrive. The atmosphere inside was crisp with silence as I opened the creaking wooden doors to enter. Everyone was sitting quietly, with eyes closed, breathing harmoniously in stillness together, as if they were some kind of single living, breathing organism in circular formation.

After several minutes, Eric, one of the four residents, invited a bell and broke the silence with a soft yet unmistakably excited voice to welcome us. My, another resident and Sangha co-founder, sat next to Eric as they co-led the orientation. On the surface, they calmly explained the fundamentals of mindfulness practice as well as logistics of the center; but on a more subtle and energetic level, the two of them were tempting us to step more closely into the magical mindfulness journey they have been walking together over the last 15 months. The mood in the room, like the tones in their voices was serene and sincere, with small unconcealed bursts of joy and nervousness eliminated any heaviness in the air. My’s soft, angelic voice was balanced by an unquestionable trust and confidence in the depth of her experiences thus far. “This is the 13th or 14th retreat we’ve done here together, and it’s something very precious that we’ve been slowly cultivating together. We’re a community and peer led retreat. That means we’re all learning from and growing with each other. Yes, we learn so much every time, just like we will this weekend.” 

After a pause, Eric recommenced, “As a community, we all have some parts of our lives that we’re beginners at, and others that we’re more experts at. These retreats are a chance for us to share our gifts with each other, learn from each other, both offering and receiving at once.”  Many gifts and givers there were indeed that weekend. The diversity of five organizers who were leading various activities was impressive, spanning females, males, Filipino, Caucasian, and Vietnamese backgrounds. To be honest, the wide spectrum of unique strengths among the facilitators was one of the most uplifting aspects of the whole retreat for me. As I happened to glance over a few of the anonymous feedback forms at the end of the retreat, it seems like I wasn’t the only one who thought so.

This happened to be the first retreat without Jonathan, one of the core founders and teachers in the community, and it seemed like a big deal for people, especially the organizing and facilitating crew. He was the most seasoned practitioner among them and carried most of the Sangha’s facilitation and organizational leadership in the first year. But by now, the forest had grown several pillar trees who stood strong to embrace the rest of the forest.

Eric was the only male on the organizing team this time. Being a resident and having lots of practice experience over the last few years, he’d had a primary role in organizing retreats the last year. Eric shared with me a few days prior that Joann, the local Dharma Teacher, had commented to their organizing team, ‘Yes, the retreat was great, and things are going great. But, there are too many white guys talking.’ This was felt like a conundrum for them at first, as both Jonathan and Eric, the two ‘white guy’ facilitators, were the only ones living full time at Mariposa over the past year, and thereby did most of the organizing and preparatory work for the retreats. But Joann’s point had clearly made it’s mark, as the Sangha was now supporting a more diverse and dynamic group of non-resident members into facilitatory action. The leadership was well spread out across the retreat. No voice stood out too strongly in front of another, while every voice stood out strong among each other.

After over 45 minutes of sitting and listening together, the facilitators suddenly shook things up with a surprise. I was reminded of the facilitators’ youthful ages as we moved into a game I had never heard of before…. “Buddha Freeze Tag!” (In fact, they later admitted that they invented the game that morning!)

What Buddha Freeze Tag feels like with Sugarplum Sangha

Prior to the game, we had listened to a moving passage form Old Path White Clouds, an account of the Buddha’s life, in which the Buddha befriended and affectionately touched a child who was part of the lowest class in Indian society, the ‘untouchables’. And this became the theme of the game! Basically, someone is the ‘Buddha’ and stands in the middle. That person tries to tag the ‘untouchables’ (the rest of us in the circle) to make them Buddhas and bodhissatvas as well. The untouchables are afraid of being tagged (because of deeply ingrained cultural fears), and try to avoid being touched. Someone in the circle starts off by saying a second person’s name; that second person has to say someone else’s name in the circle before the Buddha in the middle tags them. Slowly, everyone becomes a Buddha, and the game ends when we all become enlightened! (i.e, tagged out). The game was a total hit among everyone, while at the same time forcing us to memorize everyone’s name extremely quickly, especially for us competitive types! Everyone rolled with laughter as people tried to blurt out each other’s names before freezing with fear of being tagged. What a contrast to the meditation and stillness earlier in the evening. It was one of the most fun and creative ice-breakers that I can ever remember playing. What do you expect with the facilitators all being in their 20s and 30s? While perhaps not always true, this quality often supports better games all around.

Dawn in the mountains of Mariposa, home of Sugarplum Sangha

The nights and early mornings in these low coastal mountains were still cold, as we gathered for pre-dawn meditations every morning. A wood fire stove had been burning well before our arrival,  as we cozily gathered inside for warmth, togetherness, and peace. After the meditation, My translated a dharma talk by Thich Nhat Hanh that was originally offered in Vietnamese. I was feeling sleepy that morning, and yet I felt ease and grateful knowing that every aspect and need was being cared for so fluidly and generously by the rest of this young Sangha body.

We finished the dharma talk and proceeded to breakfast, which was was completely silent until wash-up. Except for the last lunch, every meal was silent during the first 15 to 20 minutes in order to practice mindful eating, and maintain a collective energy not dominated by boisterous exchanges throughout the day. And all the better for us, as the meals were exquisitely prepared, and we were a talkative bunch already. For example on the first night, Teel, a new Mariposa resident, went all out to prepare a burrito bar on the first night that included homemade cashew butter topping, cilantro sauce, and a chocolate banana date smoothie. Aside from the decadence, you could feel the love and intimate Sangha friendship flowing through each of her dishes.

Following a break, the Sangha started ‘working meditation’, which I would more appropriately call ‘joyful service’, because there wan’t a lot of meditation happening. While perhaps some people were quietly focused at times, my team had continuous laughter, smiles, and conversations throughout.  We tossed each other empty buckets like footballs after dumping each load of manure, and used wheel barrow journeys down the hill to get to better know each other. Regardless of one preferred quiet or conversation, one thing was clear: a ubiquitously positive spirit infused our work to help build and beautify this Sangha home. We knew that our hands were helping shape, even a little bit, this center for future retreats and possibly even future generations of practitioners.

Working meditation is the best!!

What a day of retreat… Besides everything mentioned, the Sangha gathered for a letter writing exercise, a 2 hour presentation and discussion on global mindfulness communities, dharma sharing for an hour and a half, and an hour and half long Interplay session…. WOOWWW!!!  We sure packed it in. It may have been the fullest day of retreat in my life… and it was all incredibly rich and fun as well. It was one of the most joyful days I’d had in quite a while, actually. I enjoyed it thoroughly, despite even not having slept well the night before. You can bet that I slept well the following night though.

Sunday included another 40 minute meditation at dawn, followed by yoga and breakfast together. One thing I really valued about this retreat was the organizers’ sensitivity to time and spaciousness for closing the retreat on Sunday, which gives everyone plenty of time to clean up their rooms and leave right after lunch. An unhurried drive home (especially for those commuting a few hours back to the Bay), time to settle in back home, do some laundry if needed, and enjoy a relaxing evening before Monday at work is what I call smart retreating.

Our closing session together was… well perfect, for me at least. We grounded ourselves in silent breathing for 10 minutes, the home base of our practice together. Then we did a series of touching the earth practice, offering our respect and gratitude to the land all the ancestors who came before us, before entering into a final sharing circle. For both the closing circle and dharma sharing the day before, people shared with a depth of trust, and vulnerability that was both striking to me as well inexpressibly familiar. People’s raw honesty and personal suffering was matched by overwhelming appreciation and joy for their experiences on retreat and everyone there. This candor and vulnerability allowed people to feel really seen, heard, and supported in what was most present in their lives right then and there. People shared about mental health issues in their family and feeling helpless about it; others shared about current struggles with mental health and weight control; another shared about feeling socially anxious throughout her life, yet still greatly enjoying the retreat’s social activities together; several people spoke to a recurring theme of critical and harsh self-judgments, and how to hold such thoughts and feelings more attentively with discernment and with compassion. Throughout it all, everyone shared their gratitude for what was happening in the retreat, and the opportunity be part of this vigorously budding community.

Cleaning the windows of our souls, we reflect each other more clearly and beautifully…

One gets the sense here that people are positively proud of what they are creating together, and for this precious seedling that is on the rise. They were grateful and excited to be part of something that felt so fresh and genuine, and with so much potential to grow in themselves. Most of all, they felt the happiness and pride of building it themselves. They weren’t following one leader or teacher throughout the retreat; instead, the regular members were all slowly become the leader themselves in some small way or another. That is the mysterious power of the Sangha – something that you can’t exactly place your finger on or duplicate, but you can touch it and receive it through the magic and strength of the group.

Before leaving Mariposa, I sat with Teel on the deck of her porch and newly decorated cabin during a lazy afternoon after the retreat. The afternoon forest was cool yet the spring sunshine was still bright. I shared with her that MorningSun Community, my resident home Sangha feels pregnant with possibility; it’s still young and a growing community that’s just waiting for something big to be born and created through it. She turned to me with wide eyes of knowing and said, “That’s what it feels like here too.”

A Sugarplum Cinnamon Swirl…. Yummm!!!

For more information on Sugarplum Sangha, and to see some really cool videos of their retreats and practice, visit:


Enjoy a few more photos to taste the many flavors of the Sugarplum Sangha retreat...

Working mindfully, working joyfully, working with a smile to benefit all beings…

How wonderful to clean. Day by day, my heart and mind grow clearer.

(My favorite photo taken at Sugarplum Sangha!)

Special thanks to the kind and generous hearted Sangha friends at Sugar Plum who welcomed me for one week to their community. I'm looking forward to visiting back soon!

The Blooming Forest of Sugar Plum Sangha

The Blooming Forest and Community of Sugar Plum Sangha

#1 of the Mariposa Series

May, 2017

What most impressed me when first visiting Sugar Plum Sangha at the Mariposa Institute was not the hand-built redwood cabins and dorms, nor the meditation hall overlooking the valley forest and creek, nor even the burgeoning community of young people. Rather, first off was the blooming forest completely enveloping their community. So before sharing anything further about the flourishing mindfulness community, let us saunter through the petal rich flourishing forest community. Let us take a rest and sit atop a high rock overlooking the valley with a warm cup of tea in our hands. Welcome to Mariposa and her many many blooming beings….

The slow and rich forest mountain drive up to Mariposa…

Not far off the 101 freeway in Northern California, less than 2 hours north of San Francisco, I drove along a dirt road into the dark green mountain hills, climbing slowly into a river valley well hidden from the city. It was already late afternoon when I arrived at the Mariposa Institute, and its old redwood built cabins and campus appeared very cool and dark shady brown under the thick shade of the oak forest. An old friend appeared, Jonathan, welcoming me with a long Sangha hug to this car weary traveler.

I was eager to explore, so we briefly toured the main buildings and a few cabin dwellings sprinkled throughout the forest valley, as we meandered to the meadow and creek main attractions.  It is difficult to describe the overwhelming contrast of spring’s magic in these California coastal mountains to the frigid city life not far away. It softens the senses, and seemed to prepare my heart and mind for a deeper connection to the community.

We sauntered along the forest paths at the same pace of the soft breeze in the air, following Jonathan’s footsteps that felt neither too slow or too fast. Each step, this hallmark of our tradition, reminded me I was at home in the Sangha here. Even a slight rush to our gait would seem to disrespect the rainbow galaxies of wildflowers and fresh fluorescent green blades waving to us from below. Light permeated a little bit everywhere through the feathered canopy of baby green oak leaves.

Crossing a meadow filled with wild violet irises among countless other blooming beings whose names I have yet to learn, we coursed our way through a steeper forested hillside with a streamed below. Every so often, I would stop and look at Jonathan as if to say, “Dude, You live here now?!”  Jonathan would just chuckle as if he was also barely believing it himself and say, “Yah, I know.” 

The trail meanders through meadows, oak forests, and all along the riverbed valley.

It didn’t take me long to discover why they chose this valley as the true soil to plant their deepest aspirations for building community.“There must be over a billion flowers booming in this stream valley alone, and perhaps a hundred billion across the other valley as well” I thought to myself. Over the next several days, I met many violet and white striped ‘wild irises’, various shades of violet and off-white lupin, little yellow ‘mariposa lilies’ growing on the rocky hillsides, the ‘crimson columbines’ that look like mini gorgeous spaceships, the transparent white and orange ‘fairy lanterns’ that look like real fairy lanterns, and the ‘blue dicks’ with their long stems and just usually two to four violet flowers on top that the butterflies perch and eat from… each one was a new mesmerizing friend.

During my walks either alone or with a friend, I would occasionally stumble upon a whole tribe of  one variety, especially if we ventured off the path. Minding their own business on a undiscovered slope tucked in the valley, I would find this village of wild violet irises, or a well knit community of cool-blue lupin friends. Perhaps they enjoyed particular conditions together there: a little more shade, more moisture, or perhaps more this soil than another. Whatever their reasons, they gathered by the dozens and dozens nearby, covering they territory they have claimed as home.

A family of lupin pops up to greet us happily along our way.

Eventually we came to what Jonathan wanted to show me: a simple, yet very elegant series of cascades hopping down one after another for about 25 to 30 feet. The multiple stages had 5 to 8 foot cascades, gently hopping down one after another, turning left and right, and filling small 2 to 3 person sized swimming holes in the rock at each turn. On the one hand, it was nothing in comparison to the falls that Vanessa and I had become accustomed to in Washington or New Zealand. They weren’t gigantic and thundering, nor magnificent enough to attract people from afar. Yet, this was their waterfall….  gentle cascades in their very own humble backyard. And at a short distance, even a small waterfall can be almost overwhelming to the ears, drowning out any noise in the periphery, and simultaneously numbing the spirit of any dis-ease and anxiety in the periphery of our mind. This was a clearly a Mariposa gem.

I asked Jonathan if we could climb the rocks left of the falls, rising higher above the ravine walls. He hadn’t tried it yet, so like little boys again, we played rock climbing up to the top. The steep and edgy rockside, combined with its pasty violet white succulents growing all around, and various golden yellow, violet, and light maroon wild flowers spurting up in the most unforeseen places was at once exhilarating and peacefully delightful.

Finally, we arose to the simple summit, and behold the view! The view that I am now sitting upon. The kind of view that puts so much of life into grand persecutive and scope of ease. The kind of view that mellows an anxious spirit, and warms the cold places in our soul. It was an western view to catch the last of the sunset rays over the horizon. As I would later find out, the other side of the waterfall valley had an equally stunning view, rising even higher than where we originally perched. With its eastern view, it was an unparalleled morning meditation spot, offering the first glimpses and warmth of the rays peaking up over the mountainous horizon.

A longtime resident later informed that it was called King Kong hill, and I think for good reason. The rocky plateau on top jets out high above the creek bed, and offers a stunning view of the valley on multiple sides. The sheer drop on the eastern side over the creek bed makes one feel like your just the king of the whole forest. If it weren’t for a few lilac bushes on the northwestern side, then the protruding outcrop would offer a full stunning 360 degree view.

Jonathan and I had planned on heading back before sunset, but with our new view, that plan just became obsolete. We poured some tea and breathed silently with the lingering rays. Neither of us could call ourselves wealthy by most conventional financial standards. But a cup of tea out there under the evening sunlight, our bums cushioned by thick red-green moss over the rocks, welcomed by many blooming friends, having a deeply present friend to enjoy it with, and indeed we could call ourselves with absolute certainty, very rich beings in this Universe.

Welcome to the Sugar Plum Sangha at Mariposa.

Old friends, young hearts, and playful spirits

“A view that mellows an anxious spirit or warms the cold places in our soul”

"You're Not Teachers... You're Listeners!" (Advice before Greece)

Part of the Greece Sangha Service Series

March, 2018

Plum Village, August 2017, under the Linden tree on the closing day of the Wake Up retreat in Upper Hamlet…

“What you need to do is to go there and just listen. Don’t go trying to teach anything, mindfulness, or whatever. You want to offer something, you want to help, but what you need to do is listen because you don’t know anything. You’re going to a whole new country, and you’re meeting a whole new culture. You don’t know them, you don’t know anything about them. You can’t teach mindfulness because you don’t know what they need. So, you just listen, that’s your practice. You’re not teachers David, you’re listeners.”

Phap Dung had just finished properly turning my head around 360 degrees, emptying out what was inside, and then setting it back on straight. I hadn’t expected him to knock my noggin out of the ball park, along with all my thoughts and expectations of ‘mindfully’ serving in Greece. As a friend acknowledged a few hours later, I had been ‘Phap Dung-ed’, a not-so-rare Plum Village phenomenon. I had sought his advice and encouragements for our Greece Sangha Service project, knowing that this would be a challenging expedition of both living and serving together in the ongoing refugee crisis. This included our aspirations to share our practice with other volunteers and NGOs serving in Greece, as I was familiar with sharing mindfulness practice with social workers back home. Fortunately, we have elder brothers and sisters who are not afraid to offer us a Dharma punch when we truly need it, so that our deepest aspirations can meet our habit energies on the ground, and not in the clouds.

“Phap Dung-ed”… with a smile.

During the past several years, Greece has been a doorway for millions of migrants seeking refuge from war, persecution, and economic distress. They risked everything: their homeland, savings, family members, and even their own lives, while hoping for a new way of life. For years, I felt called to go and serve in Greece, but I also knew that I could not go alone. Alone, I would shrivel up and my efforts would not reach as far as I truly hoped. I knew that I needed a Sangha.

So where can one share such aspirations with hundreds of young people who are opening their hearts to compassionate action and peace in themselves? Yep, a Wake Up Retreat in Plum Village! Last August, we shared our aspirations to model the School of Youth for Social Service in Vietnam and head down to Greece as a Sangha, asking for people to join us. ‘Let’s fuse together our practice of mindful living and sanghabuilding with our deep calling to serve those who in need.’ We understood that volunteers were strongly needed in Greece during the fall and winter months especially, so we invited people, “Come talk with us at lunch if you’re interested.” Each lunch gathering, over 20 people joined!  And in the end, 15 young adults, from eight different countries were committed to embarking on this adventure together! Wow! I love our Sangha!

Our Sangha crew of volunteers for the first month in Athens

So what did we do? We came together and first off, we listened to each other, and this only grew stronger every day. Who were these people we were living with? What were their deepest dreams and fears? What nourishment did we truly need as a Sangha to offer our presence wholeheartedly every day to others? Through our deep listening and sharing, we co-created our lives together, balancing work with morning meditations, silent meals, dharma sharings, and at least one super fun outing in nature or the city each week.

We lived in a migrant-rich neighborhood, allowing us to live in the same neighborhood with those we aspired to learn from, serve, and build relationships. We worked in refugee camps, community centers, and NGO’s in Athens, and in diverse capacities such as art therapists, physiotherapists, assistant cooks and staff in soup kitchens, mental health practitioners, legal support, construction, English and French language instruction, animal care, community gardening, and facilitated a weekly Sangha in town as well. And after a few months (of listening and learning), we did end up offering mindfulness workshops for NGO staff and volunteers who asked for our support. Some of us stayed for one month, others two to four months, and still others remain committed to living, Sanghabuilding, and creatively serving in Athens.

Looking and listening to the city with all her beauty, cries, and wonder….

Then we listened to the streets: to the singing-shouting tone of the woman selling bags of onions, tomatoes, and potatoes on our corner for one euro each; to the young Syrian man’s effervescent smile as we get off the same bus stop together and become instant friends; to the smell of tomatoes and garlic stewing under Syrian hands at Hope Café; to the compassionate trust in our brother’s voice as he recounted holding his brother in his hands for the last time after being shot by a sniper while waiting in line for food; and to crazy laughter as Phillipe tossed children in the air on his feet for the first acro-yoga session of their lives. We listened, learned, marveled at their spirits of resilience, and most of all, we developed friendships. True listening cannot help but create true friendships. And when true friendship manifests, there is no one serving and no one being served. There is only love that serves us both and reminds us of the gifts that we are to each other.

Dermot (left) and Barry (right) hang out with a dear Syrian friend and regular at Hope Cafe. Hope Cafe was the most vibrant, friendly, and supportive public space for the Syrian community that we experienced. To our blessing, it was a 5 minute walk from our house.

As our power of listening grew, so did our other Sangha powers, namely harmony, and joy. Before heading Athens together, we also asked for guidance from other monastics, like Br. Phap Linh. “Don’t forget to nourish your joy together”, he implored. “ That’s essential. Because when you nourish your joy, that’s what you’ll be sharing with others. You don’t keep it for yourselves, you offer that beautiful energy to those that you’ll be with. Especially when you’re doing this kind of work, if you’re feeling down and drained of energy, then you haven’t got anything to offer to others. They need for you to be nourished deeply. So you need to replenish your reserves; it’s a constant cycle of nourishment and offering.”

And from the abbot, Br Phap Huu: “The most important thing is your harmony together. That is what will carry you through. That is the energy that will allow you to help others. People will see your harmony, your brotherhood and sisterhood and feel drawn to it.”

We took these gems of wisdom that were handed freely to us, and then we polished them with our own experiences. Most importantly, we learned to build a Sangha family, and that was our deepest teaching of all. What is the kind of family that we wish for the most in our lives? A family that supports us, that helps us cultivate joyful togetherness, compassionate listening, and harmony among each other that we then channel into the lives of those we wish to serve with all our hearts. Through our deep aspiration to serve the world, we touched the seed of true  community, of family, of Sangha, because we need that true Sangha family in order to truly serve others.

Sangha family, in joy and harmony

We learned that when we didn’t cultivate joy, listen deeply, or disregarded harmony, then it left us near empty in our service towards others. So we began again and again and again with each other, and we never gave on each other. We sat in the mornings, came home to the safe warm refuge of dharma sharings in the evening, and practiced harmony of views during meetings to forge creative insights in our major decisions together. When someone left our Sangha, we watered their flowers so deeply that it brought deep joy and even bliss to all of us. We became one Buddha body, and when one cell touched happiness, then the rest of the body had more strength and love to share with others. And when the body was in harmony, each cell reflected delight and could shower this energy to those elsewhere.

I could share for hours and hours about our stories of our Sangha family and service, but I will now pass the baton over to my Sangha brothers and sisters, who may share their stories and reflections more deeply with you. The articles following in the next few weeks are windows into our experiences as cells working in various arenas of Athens, while also being nourished and held as one Sangha body.

Mercia practically holds our hand as we wake up with the Sangha one morning and intimately walk into the streets and friends at Hope Café. Zarah invites us into Eleonas Refugee Camp and to the safe warm haven back home, where both places carry one message: be there for each other! Dermot takes us through the streets and squats of Athens while arriving at one of the deepest experiences of family in his life. And Barry unravels the ancient koan of engaged Buddhism in his own heart: What does it truly mean to serve?

Welcome to our lives of service, family, and heartbreaking joy with Wake Up Athens!

–    David Viafora, True Zen Mountain

Our first week in Athens, we walked to the top of the hill together…. listening, meditating, and discovering moment by moment the beauty of our beloved city